UCU staff were on strike this week, fighting cuts to the Universities Superannuation Scheme and to pensions. Workers have seen a 20% real terms pay cut over the past 12 years. Workloads are becoming increasingly unmanageable, and pay inequality and exploitative, insecure contracts are rife across the sector. People Before Profit Cllr. Fiona Ferguson joined the workers and their supporters on the picket at Queen’s University Belfast.
The first 5 of up to 10 days of strike action took place this week in universities across the North. Overall, staff at 44 UK universities walked out after employers refused to withdraw their proposed cuts. At the QUB picket, the staff were determined to fight for the conditions they deserve.
Véronique Altglas, a lecturer in sociology explained: “Our pension scheme is changing to the point that someone like me would end up having to work until my mid 70s for a pension I won’t be able to live on. And also, pensions are […] a deferred form of wages. So in other words, I am told by my employer that they really can’t afford paying me what they said they would pay me when they recruited me. And of course, I’m going to oppose this.”
Asked about the importance of solidarity, Altglas responded:
“Well, it’s essential because those who are going to suffer the most are the younger generation of lecturers, those who are entering the job now, and those who will. So it’s very important that the older generations are here to support the younger ones who are going to suffer the most.”
There was no shortage of solidarity on the picket this week. Liam Kennedy from the School of History, who is retired, explained his reasons for supporting the workers:
“I have a good pension, but I really want my colleagues and friends to have the same kinds of advantages and benefits that I’ve had. So that’s why I’m here in solidarity with my friends and colleagues in Queens and indeed, with a much wider struggle, of course, across the United Kingdom, Academics are not highly paid, and the least they deserve is a decent pension.”
As the neoliberalisation of our universities has deepened, management have frequently attempted to blame striking staff for the loss of students’ education in a cynical attempt to turn students against staff. But the students see through this. Katie Ní Chléire, President of Queen Student Union, explained:
“Our education system is a marketised one. It is based on exploiting students and staff for profit, and the whole system is ruining education for students, as well as staff experience. So it’s so important that we stand with our staff in solidarity so that they get the pay and conditions that they deserve.”
It wasn’t just students standing in solidarity with the staff, but other workers too. This week was the second anniversary of the Allied Bakeries strike which saw workers win an improved pay deal. Jake Dunwoody of the Baker’s Union was present at the QUB picket to return the solidarity shown by UCU workers before:
“We’re here in solidarity with the UCU who supported us two years ago on our strike. Today was the second anniversary of our strike. So I think it was poignant that I stood here with them because I think all workers should be in solidarity with each other here and we should fight this revolution together.”
The future looms large for people on the picket line, many of whom have seen increased marketisation and the gradual erosion of pay and conditions at the university, resulting in a poorer educational experience overall. Caoimhe Ní Dhónaill, a temporary, full time lecturer at Queen’s explains how she was brought up around the University and how she is seeing its potential being undermined:
“My dad was doing his PhD whenever I was a wee kid and I wanted everything that education could bring me and could bring the world.
I’m now working there, I’m seeing my wee son, who you might hear, and I don’t think that this University can give everything it should to him. It’s not giving everything it should to us. It’s not giving everything it should to the students, it’s not giving everything it should to the staff and we need to change it.”
At heart of these stories from the picket lines are people’s lives, people whose quality of life is under attack, and with it, education as a whole. John Barry of the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics, hammered this point home:
“I’m out here on the picket line today and I’m looking across the road at a beautiful new, shiny building at the cost of millions. And this is an example of our neoliberal University that would rather invest in buildings than in people. This from a University that is £600 million in surplus, that has no reason for not acceding to our reasonable demands. But remember this, folks, buildings are not as important as people. We are the University, the staff and the students at a University. And thanks for the solidarity from People Before Profit and Cllr. Fiona Ferguson.”